Category Archives: novels with full-time missions

Tormented Middle-Aged Mormon Dad Recalibrates in a California River

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Fillerup, Michael.  Beyond the River.  Salt Lake City:  Signature Books, 1995.

Forty-one year old Jon Reeves, burdened with  family and financial obligations, church callings. and too many unfulfilled dreams, is in the throes of a mid-life crisis, something Mormons in good standing aren’t necessarily supposed to have.  Instead of writing the Great American Novel, he’s toiling away at educational grants in the basement of the high school where he used to teach–not to mention that fact that his teenaged daughter is questioning her faith, his son is being traumatized by a bully, and his youngest lives with a life-threatening illness.  Jon, in his words has been so “snarly” to his wife, Natalie, lately that his “absence will be a reprieve.”  An impromptu solo trip to the Sacramento Valley river of his youth incites a flood of memories:  the brilliant and tragic high school girl who compelled him to be a writer, his struggles  football, his humbling mission to Mexico, his domineering father, his time at BYU where he meets and marries Natalie, who seems to know exactly what she wants from life.  At the river, Jon wrestles the demons from his past, yells at God, and  finds the courage to return to his life and make it better than it is.

Key Quotes: Jon Reeves to his Bishop:   “‘Why would I want to become like God?  Myriads of beings and so many kids they’d have to wear name tags for me to keep them straight.  I can’t even handle the three I have.  Kingdoms, dominions, world without number . . . It sounds like a great big administrative headache'” (172).

“What’s their point!  All of this fasting and praying and handshaking and right-hand-raising and scripture searching, tithe-paying, pew sitting, head-nodding, yes Bishop Finley, no Bishop Finley . . . We do all these things, but it doesn’t do any good–doesn’t do me any good” (144).

What Makes it Marginal: An ease and openness with metaphysical doubt; Jon, a member of the bishopric, confesses his problems with deep Mormon doctrine to the bishop; scenes of temptation and nearly succumbing to temptation; many moments of questioning and doubt; as a full-time missionary, Jon draws a quasi-erotic rendering of a young investigator in his journal; Jon strips off his temple garments in a stifling mountain cabin with a twinge of guilt.

What  Makes it Mormonal: Family members take their church callings seriously, the intimacy and ease of the conversations with God, conventional faith-affirming missionary moments.

My Two Cents: Told mostly in internal monologue and taking a tone of near desperation, Michael Fillerup may have written the first Mormon complaint novel that comes from a place of belief. Honest and frank about how strict adherence to a faith can, at times, hinder more help, and in spite the cliché of finding oneself by losing oneself (and in nature–another easy trope), I found it affecting.

Mormon Surfer Goes to Provo, Gets a Testimony

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Thayer, Douglas. The Conversion of Jeff Williams. Salt Lake City: Signature, 2003.

Sixteen-year-old Mormon Jeff Williams has religious but not over-bearing parents, two devout older brothers, and considers himself, in comparison, a good enough Church member, in spite of the fact he’s a bit of a beach bum and likes to imbibe the occasional beer. But then he spends the summer in Provo–the “Mormon Mecca” as he sardonically refers to it–with his rich cousin, Christopher, whose serious kidney disease has compelled him to prepare for a full-time proselytizing mission, and Jeff finds he’s influenced by Christopher more than he necessarily wants to be.

What Makes It Marginal: relatively realistic discussions of a teenager’s emotional life, allusions to sex and drugs, etc.

What Makes It Mormonal: It’s a conversion narrative, pure and simple; many scenes depict prayer, church meetings, and include accurate allusions to Mormon theology, especially about the afterlife.

Key Quote: “I was no straight arrow like Christopher, but it wasn’t as if I had done anything serious like dealing drugs, stealing cars, assault with a deadly weapon, pornography, or even sex. I’d decided that I would probably have a testimony in time for my mission and be spiritual enough when I was nineteen” (11).

My Two Cents: Septuagenarian Douglas Thayer, approaching JD Salinger, does an admirable job of constructing the emotional life and channeling the uncensored voice of an often conflicted yet good-hearted teenaged boy.

Two Virgins Have the Same Naughty Dreams

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Woodbury, Eugene. The Path of Dreams. Portland: ME: Peaks Island Press, 2007. Print.

While serving a Mormon mission in Japan, Elaine Cheiko Packard (Elly) has erotically charged dreams featuring a young man she spotted only once and briefly on a train platform. Now a returned missionary and a student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Elly runs into the “lover” from her dreams: fellow BYU-student Connor McKenzie, and it turns out the dreaming has been mutual. In fact, stateside, their respective dreams have grown even more intense, despite the fact that the two have barely spoken to each other. Even Connor’s reading of the classic Church-sanctioned repentance tome The Miracle of Forgiveness does not keep the dreams at bay. In Elly’s case, the dreams have her so certain she will marry Connor, that she procures birth control pills even before they’ve scheduled a first date. After four weeks of chaste and rather breathless meetings on campus and a Sunday dinner or two at Connor’s aunt’s, they marry in the Provo temple, move into the aunt’s basement and continue a simple life as married humanities students. Then they get mild intimations that respective dead ancestors had arranged this marriage all along.

What Makes it Marginal: Allusions to and mild descriptions of sexual relations (in the context of dreams and post-marital), wet dreams, relatively frank discussions of adolescent quasi-sexual activity, Elly frankly–and with some surprise and unfettered delight–informs her former roommate/missionary companion that sex is “fun.” Elly refers mentally one of Connor’s relatives as a “son of a bitch.”

What Makes it “Mormonal:” Two devout returned missionaries culminate the narrative with a hastily arranged temple marriage and then weeks later return to the temple to act as proxies in the sealing of dead relatives.

Key Quote: “”Nothing in his personal experience [. . .] could have provided him with the substance of his dreams. / Connor was still a virgin. Common enough among Mormons his age” (11).

Hippies Can Be Mormons, Too

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Newell, Coke. On the Road to Heaven. Provo, UT: Zarahemla, 1987.

This novel title’s reference to Kerouac’s most famous work is no accident. Kit West, the protagonist in this (seemingly autobiographical) conversion/redemption story is a ’70s era long-haired, pot smoking, Colorado mountain cabin-squatting, unabashed Kerouac devotee (as well as a lover of Emerson, Thoreau and Edward Abbey) who finds the Mormon Church through a lapsed Mormon hippie girlfriend, who decides to become devout again. Once baptized, the ever-spiritual Kit becomes not just religious, but doctrinaire, serving a full-time proselytizing mission, and more than half of the novel is dedicated to this. Big dense paragraphs are chock full of details about the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, and the two-year mission spent in the often arduous environs of Columbia. Engrossing and interesting for the ways in which Americanized Zen Buddhist spiritualism collides with mainstream western states Mormonism.

What Makes It Marginal: References to pot smoking, shoplifting, pre-conversion pre-marital sexual relations (implied) and male/female cohabitation, mild missionary flirtations with young female Columbian investigators

What Makes it “Mormonal: An unlikely convert becomes an exemplary member, serves a full-time mission, and marries his old hippie era girlfriend in the temple.

Key quote: “Then I scattered the remains of the bag into the dormant skeletons of the golden lupine and green gentian and candytuft and spring beauty and went back inside to read the Book of Mormon and listen to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. / I never smoked pot again.” (124).